Monday, February 24, 2014

High Churchmen as Evangelists

The fastest growing diocese in first forty years of the 19th century was that of New York. There was a combination of factors in play. Benjamin Moore began the practice of the bishops going upstate to visit the parishes along the Hudson Valley, and as the population was following the river routes northwards, new congregations began to be formed to supplement those from colonial times. A second factor was 'cold hard cash' - Trinity Wall Street had plenty of it, and could afford to make grants to new churches as well as pay wages to the Bishop, as rector of the parish, his assistants, and support a number of Chapels in New York City. The remaining factor was a series of remarkable men who held the post of Bishop of New York. Provoost may have been unorthodox, but he was well connected and not prepared to see the Church decline. Moore, his successor as Bishop and Rector of Trinity, began to cautious push the church forward, no doubt encouraged by his able assistant John Henry Hobart.

Hobart was a remarkable figure. His portrait tends to show him as a youngish, slightly rotund man, with spectacles - he always puts me a little in mind of Schubert - yet there was no doubt as to his sheer ability. He had studied theology under William White, where he learned the dry orthodoxy of the mid-eighteenth century, and then the Cutler, who introduced him to High Church Principles. Now we have to remember that this is the old High Churchmanship, with its strong emphasis on the efficiency of the two Dominical Sacraments, its enthusiasm for Episcopal governance of the Church, and its love of the Book of Common Prayer. However, Hobart was not a conventional High Churchman. For a start, High Churchmanship had a reputation for being three parts starch, one part morals, and one part theology. Hobart was not like that. If anything, he shared the activism of the early Episcopal Evangelicals, but unlike them he chose not to participate in non-denominational efforts, but created various societies for Episcopalians - such as "the Bible and Prayer Book Society" because he wished to use them to advance the cause of Anglicanism. He was also a stirring preacher, turning his affliction - he was myopic - into an advantage, as finding it difficult to read a manuscript in the pulpit, he largely memorized his sermons, giving him a freer more spontaneous style of preaching. Yet for all the Evangelical form, there was a small but significant shift towards more 'churchly' uses. The word diocese begins to appear. Under Provoost, the diocese had always been styled 'The Protestant Episcopal Church in/of the State of New York. Hobart favoured churches which placed the altar at the east end, and had a separate chancel area for the Communion service, rather than making the Table an adjunct to the three decker pulpit. The pulpit was placed at the head of the nave, dominating that part of the church, and effectively dividing it into two room - one for the Office, the other for the Lord's Supper. He also systematized Episcopal visitation and confirmations so that the Bishop became a presence in the whole diocese, not just in the City of New York and the down state counties. This made his final attribute essential - he had a lot of energy, and although he alternated between feverish activity, and moods of depression where he retired to his country residence in New Jersey, he carried the heaviest work load of any Episcopal bishop, without assistance, for almost 20 years.

However, although 'the Hobart Effect' was considerable, it was aided by the presence of many able men in the diocese. Richard Channing Moore, an Evangelical, had built up a considerable ministry at St Stephen's which, until his departure to Virginia in 1814, was the hub of the Evangelical Movement in NY. Hobart was lucky in his assistant at Trinity - B. T. Onderdonk - a clever, plodding, fastidious man, who was more than able to hold the home front when the Bishop was upstate. The advent of General Seminary in 1817 also aided the diocese, though Hobart was a bit suspicious of it at first as it was not under his control, and it was becoming evident that a lot of the success of the diocese lay in its institutional strength, and the quality of the men that Hobart could attract into the ministry. Basically, through his ministry the Church in New York was energized, and as Episcopalians went up the Hudson, and along the Erie Canal they vowed to take the Church with them. They could be sure that when they did get upstate and organize their Grace Church or Trinity Church among the woods and hills of upstate New York, it would not be too long before a rotund man in glasses arrived to preach to encourage and to confirm their children.

Hobart's heavy workload eventually killed him. In the late spring of 1830, he headed upstate once again on another cycle of preaching, visiting, and confirming, which was to take him through the whole summer. Three months later, feeling low and feverish he tied up at a Rectory in Upstate New York in early September 1830. At first there were considerable hope for recovery, but as the condition of the worn out man declined, his friends prepared for the worst. Almost as an after thought, the rector celebrated Holy Communion for the dying man, who passed on 12th September 1830, just two days short of his 55th birthday.

As was so often the case in Hobart's later life, his assistant Benjamin Treadwell Onderdonk (1791-1861), stepped in to do what the Bishop could no longer do. He was elected to follow Hobart by the Convention of PEC in NY. B. T. Onderdonk was of Dutch descent, and his clergy said he could also be 'a bit Dutch' - stubborn, difficult, and inclined to waste too much time on trifles. However, the Diocesan Convention's choice was absolutely sound, as Onderdonk was committed to following his old chief's principles. He may have fussed about the size of the bread cubes for the Communion service, prescribed how much wine would be needed for each two dozen communicants. He may also depreciated the classical architecture of so many New York Churches and pressed the Gothic revival style on unwilling vestries, but he had the redeeming quality of being a plodder.

Now plodding is not usually considered a virtue, but when compared to his old boss Hobart, Onderdonk comes across as the consummate plodder. His fussiness was the down side of this painstaking personality - the vice of a man who did things well (not brilliantly) and thoroughly. Undeterred by his old chief's death through fever brought on by poor sanitation and overwork, Onderdonk followed the same routine as his predecessor spending the cold months in or close to New York City, then heading north each summer to visit the upstate parishes. In those days there was no New York Central railroad, never mind a Freeway or Turnpike to speed you on your way, you took to the riverboats, and worked your way upstream at a steady three or four knots calling at each town and village in turn. The river boats were also noted for their vice and gambling, but even though respectable men, especially the Protestant Episcopal bishop, may have preferred to avoid their pernicious influence, they were the only practical and economic way to travel upstate. When the river system ran out, then the Bishop had to take to the stage coaches, and jolt his way at so much a stage across country until he reached his destination. It was an exacting life, but one which B T Onderdonk sustained for some 15 years, no doubt reading some of the new 'Tract for the Times' out of Oxford, England, which his friends would have sent to him from time to time. Sadly, it was these Tracts that were to ignite the conflict that brought down Bishop Onderdonk. However, he was to have his moment of triumph first.

At the time of his consecration in 1830, the diocese of New York had around 130 clergy, 68 parishes, and probably a 110-120 missions. Unlike his three predecessors, Onderdonk was not Rector of Trinity Church, but although this somewhat lightened his load, the slack was soon taken up by the demands of the largest diocese in the Protestant Episcopal Church. By 1837, the plodder was shepherding 239 clergy in 232 parishes, which was a test of even his stamina. This made the division of either Episcopal authority, by the appointment of an assistant, or of jurisdiction by a division of the diocese essential. Onderdonk plodded his way through this, like he did everything else, smoothing the way in the diocesan convention; then making the necessary approaches to the House of Bishops and the General Convention. There was a lot of controversy, as the dioceses were then all co-terminus with the states they served, and this division was seen as crossing some sort of great organisational rubicon. In the end, the state was divided almost equally with both dioceses containing about one million people and 21,000 square miles of land. The new diocese contained 40 parishes, 50 missions, and not quite a hundred clergy, and Onderdonk had the pleasure of presiding over its first diocesan convention and of seeing the election of William Heathcoate DeLancey as its first bishop. He was probably less happy about the name "Western New York" - as a High Churchman he undoubtedly would have preferred to have the diocese named after one of its major cities. This small caveat aside, the division of the diocese of New York is a testament to Onderdonk's administrative ability, but unfortunately, it proved to be the calm before the storm.

Doubtless there had always been a little bit of grumbling among Evangelicals about Onderdonk's High Church views and - shall we call it - attention to detail, and I imagine everyone got a little 'bent out of shape' when the bishop was being a tadge difficult, but there was no major explosion until the Carey Case in 1843. Young Arthur Carey was a student at the General Seminary, who held what might be politely called 'advanced views.' With the aid of the Tracts he had travelled a long way along the road to Rome, and some of his professors had expressed concern about this. Onderdonk listened to the objections, but was determined to ordain him anyway. Instead of waving aside the opposition as Hobart would have done, he got drawn into the controversy, and this in turn stirred up further opposition. In the end it devolved into the first out-and-out faction fight in the diocese of New York and in the PECUSA as a whole, and it was to make Benjamin Onderdonk some very determined enemies.

Onderdonk was to have another year of relative peace, then rumours began to circulate of indecent conduct with a variety of women. Those long unaccompanied journeys had caught up with him in an unexpected way. The trouble was that Onderdonk was a 'touchy-feely' in an age when such familiarity could be regarded as a breach of social etiquette at best, and as a downright liberty at worst. In Onderdonk's case, it was viewed as conduct unbecoming of a clergyman, and seized upon by his enemies, resulting in a trial before the House of Bishops. The trial was a nasty tempered and rancorous affair which ended in a pretty much party line vote of 11-6 against the Bishop, who was accordingly suspended. Sadly, Bishop William Meade of Virginia, leader of the Evangelical opposition to Onderdonk, having tasted blood, decided to try for the double and take down Henry U. Onderdonk, Benjamin T's elder brother, and the second Bishop of Pennsylvania. The elder Onderdonk had been prescribed laudanum to alleviate chronic pain, but as laudanum is nothing but opium dissolved in brandy, Benjamin T's elder brother soon found himself faced with allegations of intemperance from certain Evangelicals in the diocese. Again the trial was a nasty display of party feeling, ending with a down the line vote convicting the Bishop leading to his serving an 11 year suspension from the exercise of his ministry. No-one won any advantage from these actions. The Evangelicals garnered a reputation for intolerance and partisanship which weakened them greatly later in the century. The dioceses of New York and Pennsylvania were majorly disrupted for a decade, and the High Churchmen found they had to circle the wagons in order to survive, leading to a period when High and Low were often at loggerheads with one another.

However, we still need to answer the question, why were these High Churchmen successful as Evangelists?

In the first instance, emigration into New York was still largely a British affair in the 1820s and 1830s. This meant that many of the new Americans were at least nominally members of the Church of England. However, that was only a slight 'leg-up' - far more determinative was the fact that these High Church preached the Gospel of redemption through Cross and Passion of Jesus Christ, and they also gave to the men and women that heard them the means of grace. They may have laid their emphasis on the sacraments, and virtues not far removed from the old Benedictine principles of poverty, stability and conversion of life, but in doing so they taught people how to be holy. In an age when folks were looking for salvation this thoroughness and lack of individualism could be a great strength for those looking for an identity in the New World. A further factor was cultural. Romanticism as a literary movement, with its appeal to mediaevalism, was at its height, and the Protestant Episcopal Church with its fine buildings, and solemn (rather than elaborate) ceremonial, and history fitted in perfectly with the cultural priorities of the time, just as in a sense we should be able to fit in with the counter-cultural priorities today. In short, the Protestant Episcopal Church was every bit as "romantic" as Roman Catholicism, but without its disadvantages. The time was ripe for the Church, and the men were there who God had ordained for the task!


  1. One phrase struck me powerfully, "they taught people how to be holy". I need to ponder on my own ministry in light of that.

  2. I think we all do have to ponder our ministries in that light occasionally. I know I often fall grievously short in that area.